The Washington Times - February 8, 2012, 11:28PM

A few weeks ago, word surfaced from Baseball America that the Nationals — owners of the worst farm system in all of baseball just five springs ago — were the No.1 ranked system in all of baseball in this year’s prospect handbook. Their stay atop the rankings will be short-lived as the pages were sent to press just before the Nationals swapped four of their best prospects, ones who helped them ascend to the top spot, to Oakland in the trade that brought Gio Gonzalez to Washington. And they’re also subjective — one periodical’s evaluation of the system. ESPN.com’s Keith Law put out his own rankings Wednesday morning and ranked Washington 21st, though admitted they’d be somewhere in the top 10 prior to the Gonzalez trade. 

But the honor from Baseball America remains and, as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo will be the first to tell you, without the type of farm system that BA felt was the best in the league, the Nationals likely don’t get Gio Gonzalez — don’t get the top of the rotation, power left-hander they’d been seeking for quite some time. 

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But from last to first in such a short amount of time? It’s a feat in itself, one that I took an in-depth look at in today’s paper with input from the people who know best how it was done. Things were bad, make no mistake about it. There were times — even as recently as three years ago — where some officials wondered if they’d be able to field competitive players at certain starting positions in the lower levels and the number of pitchers who threw above 90 mph were few. So to see the progress that’s been made is a point of pride for many in the organization and it was interesting to get their point of view on how it came about. 

As usually happens with a feature story of this kind, though, there’s always more information than can fit into the story. What follows are some of the tid-bits that hit the cutting room floor.

– First of all, to a man, almost every person I talked to cited the work of area scouts, the ones driving hundreds of miles on little sleep, staying hotels hundreds of nights in the year and often getting paid at the bottom of the payscale to mine the country for amateur talent. 

Here are some thoughts on that:

“There are no bonuses or accolades for signing a good player,” said Nationals scouting director Kris Kline. “It’s a pat on the fanny and move on to the next guy. They don’t get the recognition that they really, truly deserve. So when we get an award like that, I’m more happy for my guys. That really is who it belongs to. They work their tails off. They spend countless hours in cars and hotels away from their families, so to have us ranked as the best minor league system in baseball says a lot about all of our guys and (Nationals director of player development Doug Harris’s) guys too.”

“The plan and the vision that we put into this thing worked,” Rizzo said. “We had the backing financially and the support of our ownership to do it and we were able to bring in Kris Kline and (assistant GM) Roy Clark and Doug Harris and (director of pro scouting) Bill Singer and these guys to help us get this thing rolling. You can have all the plans you want, you can have all the financial support you want. If you don’t have the guys, the boots on the ground as we say, seeing the players, driving the miles, putting in the hours, it doesn’t work.

“They’re so important and they’re often overlooked and I know their pain. I can feel it. I’ve done every one of those jobs. I know that when I’m in Washington, D.C. in the office there’s a guy driving in Sioux City, Iowa that has no idea what’s going on in Washington but he’s driving the extra 200 miles to get to a game to make us better. Those guys cannot be forgotten.”

– One of the themes that was constantly brought up was the autonomy and trust that Rizzo gives his employees to go out and do their jobs. A scouting bloodline, if you will, seems to have been run through the staff, starting at the top with Rizzo who began his post-playing baseball career as an area scout. At least three people brought up the feeling that they’d been given full authority to go out and do what they had to do. Come back with results, use your judgement and communicate with the rest of the staff — but do your job. 

“You want to talk about the difference between pre-Mike Rizzo as the GM and post-Mike Rizzo as the GM and there is just a great deal of continuity,” Harris said. “There’s a great bond that we have here. Inter-departmental communication is very good. Kris and I talk regularly. We talk candidly. And that helps everybody involved.

“We’re thankful for the players the scouts have brought us, the commitment ownership’s made and how Mike’s allowed us to do our jobs. I know it sounds corny, but there’s not too many times that you’re in a situation that I think we have right now.”

– What the Nationals have done with the farm system is not a secret formula. Rizzo followed a similar plan in Arizona when he was the scouting director of a unit that went from No. 29 in 2001 to No. 1 in 2006 and former president Stan Kasten built the model against which almost all others have been fashioned in the Altanta Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s. 

But, as I noted earlier, it comes from the personnel and finding the talent. It was easy for the Nationals to select Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But it was Kline who insisted they select Danny Espinosa in the third round in 2008, it was Kline who pointed out Tommy Milone to Rizzo when the two were at his game to see another player. It was scouting that allowed them to select Brad Peacock, a high school third baseman who’d thrown only a handful of pitches before graduation, in the 41st round in 2006.

When major league baseball was running the Expos, who became the Nationals, former scouting director Dana Brown said the team had nine scouts. They were so horribly undermanned that just by increasing staff to have more bodies in more places, there was a good chance they’d improve. But what most made sure to point out was not just the volume of additions but the people who were added, many who had ties to Rizzo from Arizona or elsewhere and many others who were with Kasten in Atlanta. 

– One of the interesting facts about the Nationals ascension to the top farm system in Baseball America’s rankings is that they reached that point without making a significant proven-for-prospects blockbuster trade. As Jim Callis from Baseball America pointed out, the Nationals didn’t bolster their system by trading Ryan Zimmerman and collecting a slew of top prospects from another organization. They traded Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, sure, but Ramos doesn’t register in the prospect rankings anymore since he’s a major leaguer. The Nationals did not make any trades similar to what Oakland did with Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill this offseason. They haven’t made a huge splash internationally.

What they’ve built came almost exclusively through the amateur draft and by signing amateur talent.

“It’s rare,” Callis said. “and it certainly makes it much harder to do by doing it the way they did. But, I don’t know why more teams didn’t do this. That’s why it pays to be aggressive in the draft. Their draft positions the last three years were very fortunate… They were fortunate, but it’s not just those guys. They’ve gone out and gotten (AJ) Cole and (Sammy) Solis and the three guys from last year. It’s not like Peacock was a super-high pick. That’s a tribute to them.

“You probably couldn’t have picked two better years to be picking No. 1, but it’s more than that. It’s not just the two players alone who are making them the best farm system. Danny Espinosa was a good pick, Derek Norris was a good pick. These guys weren’t first-round picks that they threw a bunch of money at.”

– I’ll have more leftovers to post this week so stay tuned.